Nanorobotics in the UK

Nanoscientists would love to have an instrument which would allow them to see what they were doing while they picked individual molecules up and moved them around. At the moment researchers can manipulate individual molecules with scanning probe microscopy techniques, and high resolution transmission electron microscopy allows structures to be visualised with resolutions better than an individual atom. A major grant has recently been awarded to a team of UK scientists to combine these technologies, developing instrumentation that combines nanoscale actuators with high resolution electron microscopy. The result should be a new tool for manipulating single atoms and molecules while they are being imaged, with atomic resolution, in three dimensions.

The ��2.3 million ($4.4 million) grant comes from the UK government’s Basic Technology Program. It is led by Beverley Inkson and Guenter Moebus here at the University of Sheffield, and also involves the nanoscience group at the University of Nottingham.

simulated interaction between electron beam and surface
The image is a simulated interaction between an electron beam and a surface, showing the size of the electron beam to scale with the atoms making up the surface. The immediate uses that are foreseen for this technology are mostly as a nanoscale research tool, with applications to research in nanoscale electronic, magnetic and electromechanical devices, the manipulation of fullerenes and nanoparticles, nanoscale friction and wear, biomaterials, and systems for carrying out quantum information processing.

More details can be found in this one-page PDF.

Nanotechnology: making new combinations of atoms never before seen in Nature

One thread of the narrative being constructed by anti-nanotechnology groups like ETC is that the reason nanotechnology is so fundamentally dangerous is that it allows one to build completely new and unnatural forms of matter, from the bottom up, by manipulating the most basic ingredients of matter itself, the atoms. It sounds scary, and it fits into their broader narrative rather well. Scientists, having impiously dared to manipulate the building blocks of life in genetic engineering, have now gone one step further, and propose to meddle with the very basis of matter itself, producing new combinations of atoms never yet before seen in nature. Superficially, this view is supported by some of the rhetoric of the nanotechnologists themselves, for example in the title of the National Science and Technology Council report, Nanotechnology: shaping the world atom by atom. The kind of spin anti-nanotechnology activists put on this is very succintly summed up in this phrase from the recent UK protesters who dressed as angels to disrupt a nanotechnology conference: ���The same greedy corporations who messed with the genetic basis of life are now seeking to alter and privatize nature right down to the atomic level���. This just goes to show that the angelic hosts haven’t been following events on earth very closely over the last six thousand years.

The creation of new combinations of atoms to make unnatural materials is indeed a profoundly transformative technology with the potential to turn human societies upside down. The trouble is that this transformation began about 6000 years ago, with the discovery of copper smelting. The following millenia have seen rather a lot of the alteration and privatisation of nature as the crafts of metallurgy and alchemy have slowly turned into chemistry and materials science. There’s been a lot of thought, too, over the years, about what this means for the relationship between man and nature; a recent book, Promethean Fire by William Newman, gives a fascinating account of the reaction of philosophers and churchmen to the medieval alchemists.

If there is nothing fundamentally new or different about nanomaterials, does this mean that the fuss about nanotechnology is all about nothing? No, and here I disagree with those eminent scientists (mostly, as it happens, chemists) who say about nanotechnology “it’s just chemistry”. The transformative consequences of nanotechnology will come, not from simple nanomaterials, but from devices that manipulate energy, information or other matter on the nanoscale. Some of the effects of these nanotechnologies will be very positive, others, potentially, less so. But in debating these issues we need to have some awareness of how the history of technology has got us to where we are today, and we need to resist the temptation to slide lazily into the sort of prepackaged sets of beliefs that angels seem to come equipped with.

What happened to Prey – the Movie?

The news that Michael Crichton has a new book out – State of Fear – reminds me that it wasn’t long ago that we were all worrying that mobs of anxious citizens would be pouring out of cinemas with a horror of nanotechnology induced by the film of his previous novel, Prey. But after a flurry of reports at the time that the film rights had been bought by Fox, even before the novel came out, there seems to have been nothing but silence. Meanwhile environmentalists are cheerfully getting on with their protests against nanotechnology regardless. And who are the villains of the latest Crichton blockbuster? These very same environmentalists, with their irrational opposition to global warming. Now I’m really confused.

Superconductivity in diamond

A flurry of reports in the current edition of Physical Review Letters(Bustarret et al., Blase et al., Boeri et al., Roesch et al) build on the discovery earlier this year that boron doped diamond is a superconductor. I’m surprised we haven’t heard more of this from MNT enthusiasts, who are usually fascinated by anything to do with diamond. The transition temperature, admittedly, is a very chilly 4 Kelvin.

A video seminar on soft nanotechnology

You can see a video seminar on soft nanotechnology jointly given by me and my colleague Tony Ryan on the web here. This isn’t exactly new; it was done a couple of years ago, but I’ve only just come across the web version, which was done as an experiment in e-learning under the aegis of the Worldwide Universities Network, an alliance of Universities in Europe, the USA and China. You’ll need a fast internet connection and the Shockwave plug-in to view it.

Renewable energy and incremental nanotechnology

Over the next fifty years, mankind is going to have to find large-scale primary energy sources that aren’t based on fossil fuels. Even if stocks of oil and gas don’t start to run out, the effects of man-made global warming are likely to become so pressing that the most die-hard climate-change sceptics will begin to change their tune. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the rapidly developing countries of Asia will demand western-style standards of living, which in turn will demand western levels of energy use. Can nanotechnology help deliver the energy needed for all the world to have a decent standard of living on a sustainable basis?

Although wind and hydroelectric energy can make significant dents in total energy requirements, it seems that only two non-fossil primary energy sources really have the potential to replace fossil fuels completely. These are nuclear fission and photovoltaics (solar cells). Nuclear power has well known problems, though there have been recent signs of a change of heart by some environmentalists, notably James Lovelock, about this. Solar power is viable, in the sense that enough sunlight falls on the earth to meet all our needs, but the capital expense of current solar cell technology is too great for it to be economically viable, except in areas remote from the electricity grid.

To make a dent in the world’s total power needs we’re talking about bringing in many gigawatts (GW) of capacity per year (total electricity generating capacity in the UK was around 70 GW in 2002, in the USA it was 905 GW). Roughly speaking 65 million square meters (i.e. 65 square kilometers) of a moderately efficient photovoltaic gives you a GW of power. Here we see the problem of conventional silicon solar cells: a silicon wafer production plant with a 30 cm wafer process produces only 88,000 square meters a year; the cost is high and so is the energy intensity of the process, to the extent that it takes about 4 years to pay back the energy used in manufacture. We need to be able to make solar cells on a continuous basis, using a roll-to-roll process, more like a high volume printing press. A typical printing press takes just a few hours to process the same area of material as a silicon plant does in a year; at this rate we’re approaching the possibility of being able to make a GW’s worth of solar cells (roughly comparable to the output of a nuclear power station) from a year’s output from one production line. Several new technologies based on incremental nanotechnology promise to give us solar cells made by just this sort of cheap, large scale, low energy manufacturing process.

The most famous, and probably best developed technology is the Graetzel cell, invented by Michael Graetzel of the EPFL, Lausanne. This relies on nanostructured titanium dioxide whose surfaces are coated by a dye; the nanoparticles are then embedded in a polymer electrolyte to make a thin film which can be coated onto a plastic sheet. This process is being commercialised by a number of companies, including Konarka and Sustainable Technologies International. Other technologies use nanostructured forms of different kinds of semiconductors; companies involved include Nanosys, Nanosolar, and Solaris. A third class of non-conventional photovoltaics uses semiconducting polymers of the kind used in polymer light emitting diode displays, sometimes in conjunction with fullerenes. These technologies still need to make improvements to their efficiencies and lifetimes to be fully viable, but progress is rapid, and all offer the crucial benefit of low energy, large scale manufacturability.

It’s not at all clear which of these technologies will be the first to deliver the promised benefits. We shouldn’t forget that more conventional technologies, like thin film amorphous silicon, are also advancing fast – Unisolar has a commercial reel-to-reel process for producing this type of solar cell in quantity, with a projected annual production of 30 MW (i.e. 3% of a nuclear power station) coming soon. But it does seem as though this is one area where incremental nanotechnology could have a transformational and positive effect on the economy and the environment.

This discussion draws on two recent articles: Manufacturing and commercialization issues in organic electronics, by J.R. Sheats, Journal of Materials Research 19 1974 (2004), and Organic photovoltaics: technology and market”, by C.J. Brabec, Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, 83 273 (2004).

Molecular mail-bags

When cells need to wrap a molecular for safe delivery elsewhere, they use a lipid vesicle or liposome. The building block for a liposome is a lipid bilayer which has folded back on itself to create a closed spherical shell. Liposomes are relatively easy and cheap to make synthetically, and they already find applications in drug delivery systems and expensive cosmetics. But liposomes are delicate – their walls are as thin and insubstantial as a soap bubble, and a much more robust product is obtained if the lipids are replaced by block copolymers – these tough molecular bags are known as polymersomes.

Polymersomes were first demonstrated in 1999 by Dennis Discher and Daniel Hammer, together with Frank Bates, at the University of Minnesota. Here at the University of Sheffield, Giuseppe Battaglia, a PhD student supervised by my collaborator Tony Ryan in the Sheffield Polymer Centre, has been working on polymersomes as part of our research program in soft nanotechnology; last night he took this spectacular image of a polymersome using transmission electron microscopy on a frozen and stained sample.

Cryo-TEM image of a polymersome

The polymersome is made from diblock copolymers – molecules consisting of two polymer chains joined covalently at their ends – of butylene oxide and ethylene oxide. The hydrophobic, butylene oxide segment forms the tough, rubbery wall of the bag, while the ethylene oxide segments extend out into the surrounding water like a fuzzy coating. This hydrophilic coating stabilises the bilayer, but it also will have the effect of protecting the polymersome from any sticky molecules that would otherwise adsorb on the surface. This is important for any potential medical applications; this kind of protein-repelling layer is just what you need to make the polymersome bio-compatible. What is remarkable about this micrograph, obtained using the facilites of the cryo-Electron Microscopy Group in the department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, is that this diffuse, fuzzy layer is visible extending beyond the sharply defined hydrophobic shell of the polymersome.

Now we can make these molecular delivery vehicles, we need to work out how to propel them to their targets and induce them to release their loads. We have some ideas about how to do this and I hope I’ll be able to report further progress here.

Nanotechnology in agriculture and food – the ETC group is against it

The environmental group ETC today released a report strongly opposed to what they refer to as “the atomic modification of food”. This is, of course, what we used to call “cooking”. ETC are now focusing their campaign against nanotechnology onto the agriculture and food industries, perhaps in the hope of replaying the controversy about genetic modification of food. What the report reveals, though, is the slow evolution of ETC’s muddled thinking on the subject.

There is some progress – ETC is now much more explicit about the possible benefits nanotechnology can bring. I very much welcome this statement, for example: “ETC acknowledges that nanotech could bring useful advances that might benefit the poor (the fields of sustainable energy, clean water and clean production appear promising…”. They also emphasise that the debate must go further than simply considering questions of safety. But still, when in doubt about what to criticise, it is the toxicological issues that they consistently return to. And here some of their biggest scientific misconceptions get trotted out again. “The nanoscale moves matter out of the realm of conventional chemistry and physics into “quantum mechanics” imparting unique characteristics to traditional materials – and unique health and safety risks”, the report states early on, and it later refers to “serious toxicity issues of quantum property changes”. But, ironically, it’s by thinking about food and the products of agriculture that we should see that this view that nanoparticles are especially toxic as a class due to quantum effects just can’t be tenable – many or even most food ingredients are naturally nanostructured or contain nanoparticles, but quantum mechanics plays no role in their properties and certainly doesn’t make them especially toxic. If you don’t want to ingest nanoparticles, you should stop drinking milk.

The results of this confusion are apparent in their discussion of nanotechnology in the agrochemical industry. Here there’s a lot of emphasis on the reformulation of agrochemicals in nanoscaled dispersions and in encapsulated and controlled release systems. I think this is an accurate reading of what the industry is concentrating on. But why are the properties of the reformulated products different? ETC admits to some uncertainty – “ETC is not in a position to evaluate whether or not pesticides formulated as nanosized droplets… exhibit property changes akin to the “quantum effects” exhibited by engineered nanoparticles.” But nonetheless, they add, “the impetus for formulating pesticides on the nanoscale is the changed behaviour of the reformulated product”. Here they are missing the point in a big way.

It’s not that any given different pesticide molecule behaves differently when it’s in a nanoscale emulsion than when it’s in a bulk solution; it’s simply that a higher proportion of the active molecules reach the destination where they do their job, and many fewer are wasted. Is this a good thing? If you are using this technology to weaponise a biological or chemical agent, it’s certainly frightening, and ETC are quite right to point out that this technology, like so many in the agrochemical industry, is a dual-use one. But from the point of view of environmental protection and the health of agricultural workers it is entirely a good thing – pesticides are toxic and potentially dangerous chemicals, and if the desired effect can be achieved with a smaller total pesticide burden that’s got to be a good thing. A scientist working formulating agrochemicals once told me “Currently we operate like a hospital that, rather than giving its patients medicines, sprays the hospital car park with antibiotics and hopes the visitors carry enough in on their feet to have some effect”. Finding ways to use powerful chemicals in more frugal and targeted ways seems a positive step forward to me. To elaborate on one example that ETC mention, Syngenta has been working on a long-lasting insecticide treatment for mosquito netting. This seems to me to be an appropriate, low cost and environmentally low impact contribution to a major problem of the developing world – malaria – and I would struggle to find anything about this sort of development one could sensibly oppose.

I’ve already discussed my views on ETC’s thesis that the replacement of commodities like cotton by nano-treated artificial fibres will greatly disadvantage the developing world below, and I’ll not add anything to that. I’ll simply point to the deep inconsistency of claiming on the one hand that nanotechnology poses a threat to farmers by taking markets away, and on the other hand being worried by the idea of new uses for crops as industrial feedstocks.

The section on nanotechnology in food manages to lose even more conviction. In the face of the difficulty of finding very much to get hold of, once again the theme of nanoparticle toxicity recurs. Food additives are being prepared in new, nanoscaled forms, and these haven’t been separately tested. They give as an example lycopene, a naturally occurring nutrient that BASF is bringing to market in a synthetic, nanodispersed form. They quote a patient explanation from BASF that once this stuff reaches the gut it behaves in just the same way as natural lycopene, lamely agree that “the explanation that all food is nano-scale by the time it reaches the bloodstream makes sense a-priori”, and then add the complete non-sequitur that we should worry that it hasn’t been tested in its nanoscale form. “What nano-scale substances are in the pipeline that have already been approved as food additives at larger scales but may now be formulated at the nano-scale with altered properties?” they ask. Let’s take this very slowly – food additives aren’t generally things that are developed on large scales – they’re molecules, and the usual state they arrive at the food manufacturer, and in which the consumer eats them, isn’t in large lumps, but in solution – i.e. about as nanodispersed as it is possible to get.

As in the first ETC report on nanotechnology, The Big Down, it isn’t that real things to worry about aren’t identified. The issues that surround “smart dust” and universal distributed intelligence are serious ones that need some real discussion, and it’s quite right for ETC to highlight this. There are very many very worrying aspects about the way the agri-food industry operates both in the developed and the developing worlds, and left unchecked I’m sure that developments in nanotechnology and nanomedicine could well end up being used in very negative ways. But as before, if ETC showed a bit more discrimination in what they criticised and a bit more understanding of the underlying science their contribution would be a lot more worthwhile.

I rather suspect that this report has been rushed out to hit the Thanksgiving slow news patch in the USA. Maybe it would have been better if ETC had sat on it a little longer, long enough to sort out their misunderstandings and get their message straight.

Nanotechnology at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

A very mixed, but very engaged audience, including journalists, artists and business types, attended last night’s discussion of nanotechnology at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. If they enjoyed it as much as I did, they will have got their money’s worth. The mix of panelists – including a science journalist, a science fiction writer and two scientists – worked very well, I thought. Paul McAuley, the science fiction writer, made sure we didn’t concentrate too much on the here and now, while the journalist, Tom Feilden, brought some perspective and some telling comparisons with previous technology debates. Philip Moriarty kicked the evening off, with a trenchant broadside against the Drexlerian vision. His perspective on this is rather different to mine, in that he’s from the “hard” end of nanotechnology and is very familiar with the practical problems of moving atoms around in a scanning tunnelling microscope, so his critique is based on what he sees as a huge practical gaps in Drexler’s implementation path. I should mention that (like me) Philip has read Nanosystems very closely and very carefully. Drexler remained an omnipresent theme through the evening (the ICA had thought about bringing him across in person, but couldn’t afford the fee).

Some questions and themes from the discussion:

  • how do you represent things that you can’t see, and what implications does this have for any claims visual representation might have for objectivity?
  • can philosophy tells us anything about the way informal social agreements grow up to provide an effective ethical framework for regulating behaviour in new circumstances even in the absence of anything more formal, and the possibility that this might provide surprisingly robust defenses against problems from new technology?
  • what is the role of the profit motive and military imperatives on steering the direction of research in nanotechnology?
  • what can be done about the tendency for discussions on new technologies always to revert to simple questions of risk assessment rather than more challenging issues about the way we want society to be heading?
  • Stuff too cheap to steal

    Proponents of Drexlerian nanotechnology (MNT) often cite the disruption to the economy that they say will happen when MNT makes the cost of manufacturing everyday products negligibly small. But we’re not far off this situation already; only a fraction of the value in the goods we buy in the shops is added by the manufacturing process (as opposed to design, marketing, retailing and so on). Relentless incremental improvements in manufacturing technology, together with the economic pressures of globalisation, are already causing an unprecedented and sustained drop in the price of consumer goods. There’s rather poignant commentary on this process in today’s Times. It seems that burglary rates have recently precipitately dropped in Britain. Much as politicians would like to attribute this to their far-sighted crime policies, the police instead blame the fact that the traditional things that get stolen in break-ins – televisions, video recorders, computers and so on – are now so cheap to buy new, and are so quickly rendered obsolescent, that the markets for the stolen goods have all but collapsed.